There are over 370 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the globe. Protecting and advancing their rights have been at the heart of Tonya Gonnella Frichner’s mission for almost three decades, serving as an attorney and former member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In DESA News, she shares past gains and hopes for the future.
With the upcoming 12th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues taking place on 20-31 May, and with the world conference more than a year away, DESA News got an exclusive opportunity to meet with Ms. Tonya Gonnella Frichner.
Ms. Gonnella Frichner has an impressive track record, working as an attorney since 1987 to secure the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. She is the President and Founder of the American Indian Law Alliance and is a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, Snipe Clan. The city of Syracuse sits on their traditional territory, about 250 miles North-West of New York City.
During the past 20 years, she has sought to make the voices of indigenous peoples heard at some of the major UN Conferences. She also paved the way for the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000 and the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. From 2008 until 2010, Ms. Gonnella Frichner served as a member of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues and she was its North-American Regional Representative.
Long history of involvement
“I began my work in 1987, after I finished law school and it was the Iroquis Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee, that brought me along and mentored me and who took me to my first meeting at the UN in Geneva,” Ms. Gonnella Frichner said. “The Haudenosaunee have been doing this work for many, many years,” she added, sharing that it was in 1923, when a Cayuga Chief was sent to Geneva for the first time to discuss the situation on his territory.
Ms. Gonnella Frichner described the importance of the nation-to-nation relationship that had been established early on by her community, as European settlers started to arrive at their shores. “That’s when our treaties were established, our diplomacy,” she said. For her community, it was a natural step seeking justice at the United Nations. “In 1977 our people understood that there was a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but were confused as to why it did not apply to indigenous peoples,” she explained.
In 1992, she was involved in the first Earth Summit and she saw the surge in interest and participation of civil society. “Civil society should have a voice, and should be speaking with governments and should be holding them accountable on different levels,” she said, also pointing to the fact that indigenous peoples have taken a leading role in seeing civil society more involved at the UN.
Paving the way for UN Declaration
Ms. Gonnella Frichner also depicted the 14-year-long process that finally led to the creation and adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. “There were difficulties along the way, especially around the right to self determination,” she said. Getting the language right and reaching consensus also for the wording around the right to free, prior and informed consent, also involved a lot of work. “The article within the declaration that I am very proud of is the one protecting our treaties, agreements and other arrangements,” she added.
The UN Declaration is a milestone for Ms. Gonnella Frichner’s own Nation and she underscored the importance of its realization. “What our people would like to see is this declaration being implemented on a local and national level,” she added.
The need for a broader and more encompassing forum later led the way to the creation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and for three years Ms. Gonnella Frichner served as its member. “I was assigned to write a preliminary study on the Doctrine of Discovery and its affect on indigenous peoples,” she said. This Doctrine has throughout history led state actors to assert a sovereign dominant authority over indigenous peoples, ultimately resulting in the violation of their human rights. In 2012, the Permanent Forum addressed this issue as the main theme for its 11th session.
Critical matters for upcoming events and beyond
There are many important items on the agenda for the upcoming 12th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to be held on 20-31 May. The implementation of the UN Declaration, education, health and culture – these are some of the topics at hand. There will also be a discussion on the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples which will be held at UN Headquarters in September next year.
“My hope is that it will continue its excellent work,” said Ms. Gonnella Frichner, describing the Forum’s important role addressing a number of issues related to social and economic development. “If we look at health, the statistics are very, very high against us and it has been agreed to that indigenous peoples are the most marginalized in the world and the most vulnerable. Whether suffering from diabetes or tuberculosis, the list goes on and on,” she said, adding that these statistics basically are the same in developing and developed countries.
“Education, the statistics are the same. Governments need to provide situations where education as a human right, is available to indigenous peoples. Education is important but including our life ways and our languages must be attached to that as well,” she said.
Ms. Gonnella Frichner also underscored the vital role of culture and the need for it to be part of the domestic policies of governments. “When I think of culture I think of being in a room with 2,000 indigenous peoples all speaking different languages,” she said smiling. “But when we are together, in our meetings, we are speaking one language,” she added. “Our relationship to mother Earth is identical throughout indigenous communities.”
When talking about next year’s world conference, Ms. Gonnella Frichner expressed hope that the participation of indigenous peoples will be at a high-level, pointing to the strong commitment for this event shown by the past and current President of the General Assembly. Indigenous delegates will also gather for a meeting in Alta, Norway this June to look at the issues at hand and to draft a unified statement for the world conference.
Addressing poverty at core of priorities
When we discussed the development agenda beyond 2015 and some of the most important priorities, Ms. Gonnella Frichner emphasized the issue of poverty. “Poverty is the overarching theme if you will, that affects indigenous peoples when it comes to health, education, our youth, our women. It affects everything across the board.” She also underscored the need for an inclusive process, ensuring indigenous peoples participation.
“Development in indigenous communities must be applied with the Declaration in mind,” she said, explaining the importance of using it as a framework to look at development, poverty and its affect on all indigenous peoples within different regions. “It must be applied, seriously, not only on a local, national, but international level,” she said.
Involvement of future generations key
Playing a crucial part in world matters is today’s youth, which makes up for about 40 per cent of the global population, with 67 million of them representing the indigenous youth community. “We have seen indigenous youth take on a very strong role and make very strong statements,” Ms. Gonnella Frichner said, highlighting that one of their main concerns relates to climate change and global warming.
“This world is going to be left to them, they are our future leaders, so our responsibility is to mentor those future leaders, and to bring them into the discussions,” she said. “And that’s not just for indigenous youth, that’s for all youth throughout the world,” she added. “As we say from the community that I’m from, the Haudenosaunee, when our leaders sit in deliberation, when they are in counsel, their decisions are going to be made with the 7th generation in mind,” she explained.
Ms. Gonnella Frichner underscored the importance of this kind of approach. “So that we don’t stick with a quick fix, or something that will only last for 15 years. No it must be until that seventh generation has arrived. The world needs to be intact for them when they arrive and are here to take on the challenges of this world,” she concluded encouragingly.
The 2013 regular session of the Committee on NGOs was held earlier this year and saw a record number of applications from NGOs seeking consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). On 20-29 May, and on 7 June, the Committee will resume its session and make decisions about which NGOs to accept for general, special or roster consultative status.
As the Committee concluded its first session of the year on 8 February, 159 NGOs were recommended to be granted consultative status. The Committee will revisit this recommendation and also review the applications of a total of 246 new and 180 deferred applications by NGOs at the upcoming session.
Navid Hanif, Director of the Office for Economic and Social Council Support and Coordination in DESA, said the number of NGO applications had never been higher. More than 600 of them, from all over the world, were submitted this year, which is double the number compared to last year.
NGOs play vital role for reaching development goals
Mr. Hanif also underscored the crucial role of NGOs and civil society in reaching the Millennium Development Goals and in helping to design Sustainable Development Goals, as well as a post-2015 development agenda. “The concerns of everyone, not least the world’s poor and marginalized, must be heard loud and clear,” Navid Hanif said. “Civil society is well placed to achieve this,” he added.
Established as a standing committee of ECOSOC in 1946, the Committee reports directly to the Council. Comprised of 19 members elected on the basis of geographical representation, the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations decides about the general, special or roster consultative status on the basis of an applicant’s mandate, governance and financials, among other criteria. Once accredited, NGOs can attend meetings of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and enjoy different levels of benefits, depending on their status.
Organizations enjoying general and special status can attend Council meetings and make oral statements, or circulate written statements. In addition, those with general status may recommend items for the Council’s provisional agenda. Roster status organizations can attend meetings, but submit statements only if requested by the Council or Secretary-General. Groups with general and special status must also submit a report every four years, which is also analyzed by the Committee. There are currently more than 3700 organizations with ECOSOC consultative status.
“The Committee’s work is seen as essential by many NGOs as ECOSOC consultative status provides important benefits, such as automatic accreditation to many intergovenmental meetings, as well as year-round access to the UN conference facilities in Geneva, Vienna and New York,” Navid Hanif said.
Wide range of work carried out across the globe
While the majority of applications still originate from Europe and North America, an increasing number of applications is being received from what is known as the developing world. This is a reflection of the clear trend towards globalization of civil society and, as the application process is entirely online, increased access to the Internet globally.
Most of the organizations now seeking consultative status work directly with social and economic issues. Representing all corners of the world, they operate focusing on sustainable development, improving living conditions and reducing poverty in rural areas, reaching educational equality, addressing racism and fighting HIV/AIDS. They also support health and social workers, promote women and girl’s rights, protect natural resources and biodiversity and foster civil society partnerships for development as well as the participation of youth.
While the world economy struggles to recover, the challenges and emerging issues of the global slowdown have affected developed and developing countries alike. With a focus to address these pressing issues, UN ECOSOC, the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held a special high-level meeting on 22 April.
Taking place in the wake of the global economic crisis, the high-level event focused on ‘Coherence, coordination and cooperation in the context of financing for sustainable development and the post-2015 development agenda’. The meeting was addressed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who inaugurated the newly renovated Economic and Social Council Chamber, saying, “let us use this new room for dynamic actions that will have an impact far beyond its walls to help suffering people. Together, we can make our world more just and equitable – and that will make it more peaceful.”
In his opening remarks, ECOSOC President Néstor Osorio called for greater coordination between the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions to achieve poverty reduction, trade growth and job creation. Mr. Osorio also stated that given the current high unemployment, geopolitical tensions and the possibility of a climate shock, there was a need for “more forceful and concerted policy actions at both national and international levels to mitigate major risks and ensure a stronger and sustained economic recovery.”
The Deputy Secretary-General called upon ECOSOC to play a crucial role in promoting dialogue among Member States on the post-2015 development agenda, including the issue of financing for sustainable development.
World economic outlook and pursuit of MDGs
As reported in the World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) 2013, released by DESA’s Division for Development Policy and Analysis earlier this year, the world economy is still struggling to recuperate. Growth of world gross domestic product (GDP) is forecast to reach 2.4 per cent in 2013, constituting only a slight improvement from the estimated growth of 2.2 per cent in 2012, when the world economy saw a renewed slowdown synchronized across countries at every level of development. This economic downturn has affected the work of sustainable development projects, particularly the pace in reaching the MDG goals.
Since 2000, the MDG framework has helped galvanize international efforts towards the implementation of internationally agreed development goals. The implementation of the MDGs, and particularly MDG 8 on global partnerships for development, gained additional momentum with the outcome of the International Conference on Financing for Development, held in Monterrey, Mexico, in March 2002, which engendered immediate gains for financing the MDGs, particularly with regards to official development assistance.
During the event, the ECOSOC President also highlighted the importance of a “renewed global partnership” beyond 2015, calling for a new development agenda to be “more structural, inclusive and systematic.”
Strategies to effectively finance sustainable development
Clear and practical measures for implementing sustainable development progress were established to better inform policy decisions. The Rio+20 Conference recognized the need for significant mobilization of resources to promote all three pillars of sustainable development. For this purpose, governments agreed to establish an intergovernmental committee of experts to propose options for an effective sustainable development financing strategy. A dedicated working group under the UN System Task Team on the post-2015 development agenda was established with the objective of mobilizing inputs from the UN system in support of the committee’s work.
International cooperation remains important in facing the challenges for global development. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed that a strengthened Ministerial Review should be a central venue for monitoring the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda. He also suggested that the biennial High-level Development Cooperation Forum, which had emerged as a mutual accountability forum within the United Nations system, “could further expand its role as a driver for greater national and global accountability in development cooperation by promoting mutual accountability as an overarching principle in the post-2015 development agenda.”
In her remarks, Ms. Shamshad Akhtar, DESA’s Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, underscored the importance of an effective strategy to finance sustainable development in the follow-up to the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference. She suggested that, “foreign investors will play a significant role and serve to introduce innovation and technology and make sure that countries/companies that are brining FDI, bring in the technology for sustainable development.” She also urged for an increase of official development assistance (ODA) to the level of 0.7 per cent of national income of developed countries.
Effective global governance system
In addition, an effective system of global economic governance would also enhance the global partnership for development through ensuring the participation of all relevant global actors in international policy making and dialogue.
The international community must broaden and strengthen the involvement of developing countries within international economic decision-making while creating partnerships with relevant non-state actors, like the private sector and civil society, in activities and dialogue pertaining to development. An inclusive, flexible and coherent system for global economic governance is necessary at the national, regional and international levels.
Underscoring the importance of coherence, coordination, cooperation, Mr. Osorio pointed to the very basic goal of the international community’s efforts, saying “as long as poverty exists our work will remain unfinished. Let there be no barrier to the heights in which we must soar. In the post-2015 agenda we have committed ourselves to eradicate poverty. We need to think horizontally rather than vertically.”